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Sunday, March 03, 2024

“A catalyst for equity”: Heartwood Neighborhood project moves forward after City Commission approval

The 34-home neighborhood is in Southeast Gainesville

Graphic by Shelby Cotta
Graphic by Shelby Cotta

After about 10 years of planning, the first home is standing in the Heartwood Neighborhood. Its new website, with floor plan and pricing details for interested buyers, launched May 14.

The neighborhood, located at 1717 SE Eighth Ave., consists of 34 single-family homes and sits near Depot Park. Team Dynamo at Keller Williams Realty announced May 14 the sales for the houses will begin June 30. 

The land holding the neighborhood was once the Kennedy Homes complex, which was determined unsafe to live in and torn down after a major fire over 15 years ago. In the years following the fire, the lot sat empty as the city brainstormed what to do with the land, Craig Wilburn, team leader of Team Dynamo at Keller Williams Realty, said.

Wilburn said the Heartwood neighborhood project arose from hopes of promoting economic development in East Gainesville. The area, he said, was designed to keep residents on the East side segregated and economically depressed from a lack of development

Eleven of the 34 homes will be sold through an online lottery system to qualified buyers who are approved for a down payment assistance program with up to $70,000 in assistance, Wilburn said. The 11 homes are called “Dreams2Reality.”

The city agreed to subsidize the construction of these homes, and the city, state and Gainesville Regional Utilities have provided grant money, Wilburn said. To receive the grant, prospective buyers must meet criteria to be placed into the lottery. 

The criteria includes: not owning a home since June 30, 2018, currently residing in Alachua County, household income falling within 2021 Housing and Urban Development income limits, contributing 2% of the sales price and obtaining a preapproval letter from a certified lender. The computer lottery system will then randomly select 11 of the names. 

Wilburn, who has lived in Gainesville for about 25 years, always heard stereotypes about East Gainesville being run down and crime ridden. He said he sees Heartwood as an opportunity to change that narrative and encourage people to appreciate the beauty of the area. 

The city first planned to build more affordable housing in the area but instead decided to build a neighborhood that would invite more people to live in East Gainesville, he said. 

“We have to start bringing some more capital into that market area to help elevate it and not keep it economically depressed,” he said.

The Gainesville Community Reinvestment Area, the city program that created Depot Park and helps underserved regions attract private investment, worked with Wilburn on house designs that include modern exteriors and finishes.

“I didn’t want it to look like every other community in Gainesville,” Wilburn said. “I really wanted it to be high quality — new product, new concept.

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“The beauty of Heartwood is — I look at it as a catalyst for equity.”

In the same neighborhood, there could be two identical homes, but one owner would pay about $230,000 while another is paying less with assistance, he said. The lottery system is meant to help people with good credit scores in lower income brackets afford a home, Wilburn said.

“We’re going to create an opportunity for people to get into really nice homes and a great community in East Gainesville and not leave,” he said. “And we’re going to create an opportunity for people who want to be closer to the beauty of our county to have an opportunity to purchase there as well.”

While there are more than 1,200 people on the interest list for the neighborhood right now, some have concerns about its affordability. 

Tina Days, a 42-year-old East Gainesville resident, first heard about the neighborhood on Facebook. She said she was immediately interested because of its affordability, quality and proximity to her daughter’s school.

“It was a really nice thing to have over on the East side — the only one that I know of,” Days said. 

However, she said it has taken too long for the neighborhood to be developed.

“You can go any day of the week and go on the West side and see apartments and houses built overnight,” she said. 

Days also feels discouraged that not all of the homes in the neighborhood are affordable for low-income people. She said she and many others expected the homes to be affordable after the Kennedy Homes apartment complex was torn down. Days said she called into the city commission to bring up these concerns. 

“I’m very concerned that it’s not going to be East side residents that even get the affordable housing,” she said. “That project was supposed to be for residents of East side.”

There is also concern, Days said, that the Heartwood neighborhood could further amplify pre-existing issues due to what she calls a “housing shortage” on the East side.

She said she and many others are unable to find housing in their price range, and the homes they find often need renovations. She fears that if more neighborhoods like Heartwood begin popping up on the East side, house prices in surrounding neighborhoods will also go up.

“A lot of people in the community were very discouraged about Heartwood,” Days said. “We were led to believe something, and it entirely just changed into something else.”

Daniel Gil, a project manager for the GCRA, said he understands these concerns. The community remained involved as the neighborhood was designed, and GCRA advisory boards were informed of each design step, he said. 

Gil said much of the community wanted to see high quality homes in East Gainesville, like the ones in West Gainesville. 

“I feel confident in the product that we are producing,” he said. “It’s something that I understand may be worrisome, but I think in the end it’s going to be a beautiful thing.”

Wilburn said the neighborhood is an opportunity to infuse people with higher incomes into the East Gainesville area while still considering those who do not have a strong financial capability.  

“Heartwood is a template, I hope for us to be able to show how to create quality products and have different income levels be able to enjoy the same product,” Wilburn said. 

Contact Lucille Lannigan at Follow her on Twitter @LucilleLannigan.

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Lucille Lannigan

Lucy is a senior journalism major and the metro editor for The Alligator. She has previously served as a news assistant and the East Gainesville reporter for the metro desk as well as the health and environment reporter on the university desk. When she’s not doing journalism you can find her painting or spending time outside.

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